Toughest Aussies touched by floods

BRIGADIER Paul McLachlan’s voice brims with pride as he talks about the men and women who helped people so desperately in need.

Brigadier McLachlan is the joint task force commander of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Operation Flood Assist.

“It was a very emotional response from soldiers who are going to be off to Afghanistan at the end of the year,” Brigadier McLachlan said.

“They are all raving about the courage and the willingness of the residents to get better and recover from this and they are very proud to have helped them.

“The truth of the matter is the Australian soldier, naval personnel and air force personnel are always concentrating on creating the right effect on the ground.

“There is a huge amount of empathy for the people they deal with on a day to day basis, whether that’s overseas or back in Australia.

“But when it happens in your backyard to your fellow Australians, I’ve got to tell you we had people falling over themselves to get assigned to the joint task force.

“Despite the fact they were doing some pretty back-breaking work and some pretty unglamorous tasks, every single person I spoke to was really happy to help their fellow Queenslanders and fellow Australians.”

Joint Task Force 637 was established on January 1 after flooding hit northern and central Queensland.

As the need became greater, the Government kept assigning additional forces. At the time, Colonel Luke Foster was in command.

“As the disaster unfolded and we got through that initial emergency response there was a decision by government that they needed to put in a more formalised and a larger organisation to assist with the flood recovery effort,” Brigadier McLachlan said.

“That’s when my headquarters and my role were established.

“I’m the commander of 7th Brigade based at Enoggera barracks and that looks after about 3800 combat forces.

“We had a lot of people from 7 Brigade already assigned to the operation but they put me in charge of that on January 17.”

As the New Year started the plan was for 7th Brigade to conduct training to prepare to go to Afghanistan at the end of the year.

“Quite clearly when something as important as assisting the flood-damaged south-east Queensland area pops up, we come off the path we were working on and come on to the more urgent one,” he said.

“It got up to the stage where during the response phase of the flood effort we had about 1900 people in the joint task force.

“There were assets from Navy, Army and Air Force all doing either specialised tasks or what we call a general assistance role in the major flood-affected areas in Brisbane, Ipswich the Lockyer Valley and the Somerset area. The really good thing about the Defence Force assets is we are a legion and we can turn our hand to most things, but we also have some very specialist capabilities that were brought on to assist the government and local authorities.”

When a lot of hands were needed to help people strip out their houses and remove tonnes of rubbish, people from the infantry battalions, airfield defence guards and general duties sailors were rolled in.

Heavy equipment such as excavators, dozers and tip trucks were brought in to help the council and contractors and the army of volunteers.

“At the same time we did a lot of very specialised ADF tasks,” said Brigadier McLachlan, who made sure he got his hands dirty too.

“We ran the ADF support out of an operations room at Enoggera but I got out and saw every single element of the ADF support,” he said. “I spent a lot of my time out at Grantham. Right from early in the piece we had a company group from 8/9 Battalion that was sent to Grantham to assist police with search and rescue tasks.

“They set up a command post right next door to the police and helped with some very onerous searching through flooding creek lines and flood plains all the way down to the Wivenhoe.

“Because of the relationship we started to strike up with the town and because of the travails that the whole town had gone through, we started to flow in some engineer support to help with that.

“We established some pretty good relationships with those in the town and we decided we would transition the search organisation into a general support organisation and put in more people.”

ADF support personnel were assigned to every resident who felt they needed them.

Brigadier McLachlan said that desire to help traced back to last year after 7th Brigade lost six people in Afghanistan.

“The support that flowed in there; there were a lot of people in the organisation who were absolutely determined to make sure that support was returned in spades when they got the opportunity,” he said.

“I think it’s a great situation and one I’m very proud to have been involved in.

“We’d do it anyway; the ADF is filled with the sort of people who, when you give them a task will go at it as hard as they possibly can. But this one was personal. This was family and friends, it was in our backyard and it was something we were determined to be a part of and help fix.

“There’s a lot of stories, and I spent a lot of time talking to people who were flood-affected, but one thing I heard from all three services that sits with me pretty well is that after the guys from 8/9 had spent five days out at Grantham we rotated them and gave them a bit of a break. They came back into Brisbane in the middle of the flood relief effort and they all got into their civilian kit and volunteered and worked with the rest of the Mud Army.

“That’s the sort of people we’re lucky enough to have in our organisation and they make you very proud.

“It’s been a pleasure to work alongside the people of south-east Queensland in this. We’ve had fantastic co-operation from government agencies, the SES, police and fire service and the ambos. Everyone has been fantastic and they have always concentrated on making a difference to the people who were flood-affected.”

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